Glorious memories of carol singing in Cork city

Cork people who sang carols for the Legion of Mary tell of the lovely iced buns as rewards - also in Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN recalls old teachers and Christmases of past
Glorious memories of carol singing in Cork city

Young carol singers outside the Victoria Hotel in Patrick Street, Cork city, on December 16, 1965

LAST week, Pat Fitzgerald remembered caral singing in Blackrock with the Legion of Mary, and garnering unexpected treats in the way of Tanora and cakes afterwards. His memories triggered others.

“Oh yes, I went carol singing too with the Legion of Mary,” says Eileen Barry.

“Funny, I was just thinking about all that yesterday, in this cold weather! We went all around the city, and it certainly entailed a lot of walking.

“I definitely remember carol singing at various places on the way out to Dennehy’s Cross, and on to the estates in Bishopstown. We ended up near the Bishopstown Bar.

“But the bit I looked forward to most (and probably the reason I was willing to go) was going back to the Legion of Mary place at the end of the night for supper. This meant tea and lemon buns - the ones with icing on top! At that hour of the evening it was a real treat and a variation from the usual.

“I was allowed to stay for that at least once, but mostly, since I was fairly young, my father would say it was time I was in bed and we left before the ‘supper’. That really disappointed me!”

Katie O’Brien remembers those singing evenings too, and agrees that the enticement of buns and tea at the end of a long trek around the city was enough to keep her in the group.

Carol singers collecting in aid of Penny Dinners on December 14, 1933.
Carol singers collecting in aid of Penny Dinners on December 14, 1933.

“At that age, and back then, any little extra treat was seized with delight. I wonder who supplied the buns so generously? Probably some friendly local baker.”

Katie remembers tramping out to the new housing estates around Douglas and seeing for the first time elegant Christmas trees, all lit up, standing in windows to be admired by passers-by.

“The people who were running the events for the Legion of Mary were tireless. I remember Frank Duggan running up and down driveways shaking the collection box and then coming back to lend his voice to the carols. It was great.

“We did have carol singing from our school one year, but it was very strict and organised and we all had to be in the school coat and beret and behave ourselves and only go to specific areas.

“The Legion would go anywhere that there was a penny to be had for charity!”

Tony Finn wrote in the Throwback Thursday column of November 24 about the choirmaster at Colaiste Chriost Ri who guided his young voice in choral music.

We can now reveal his name was Roibeárd Ó hÚrdail - known to so many pupils by the affectionate nickname of ‘Dantro’ - after a heroic character in the Urney Chocolates radio series of the time, Dantro the Planet Man.

Tony recalled: “Whenever we rehearsed at school, he would take off his shoes and walk around in his socks so that he wouldn’t make any noise on the wooden floor and ruin the wonderful melodic sounds we were creating!

“He was clearly from a different planet if he thought that the racket we made was melodic,” adds Tony, “but I wonder if anyone remembers his name?”

Well, Frank Desmond replied in short order, although somewhat tentatively: “My only hesitation in writing this is due to the fact that I do not know how many other readers will write to you on the same subject!” he says.

“I write, in effect, on behalf of a generation of students at Coláiste Chríost Rí, regardless of how many of them also write to you.

“Without further delay, let me get to the main point: thank-you very much for explaining something which that group of people never knew in their lifetime, namely the origin of the nickname Dantro.”

The bad news, though, he confesses, is that the reference means nothing to him. “I had never heard of Urney Chocolates or indeed their radio show.

“I am old enough to remember radio programmes on Radio Eireann in the 1960s but Urney Chocolates was not one of them. That must have been in the 1950s.”

As for Roibeárd himself, Frank adds: “The idea of him being a choirmaster is also new to me.

“I went to Colaiste Chriost Ri in the 1970s, when he was teaching Irish. I was one of his students for several years.

“It was said, back in the 1960s, that in his Monday morning classes, the sound of a pin dropping was very bad because, as a result, he would punish the entire class. He wanted dead silence!”

In the 1980s, the said Roibeárd moved to the Irish Department at UCC.

Frank adds: “I remember a letter he had in the Irish Times about ten years ago, about the place name of the location where Michael Collins was shot. I give an excerpt from that letter below, which shows his grasp of his subject and indeed his learning:

A chara, - Wed, Aug 22 2012

In my paper to which John A Murphy (August 16) refers, “The place name Béal na Blá”, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 104 (1999), on the evidence of those in the area who knew the last natural bilingual speakers there, and who could recall their speech, and also on certain (though scanty) evidence, in the Ordnance Survey Namebooks and maps, I point out that the second element in the place name was neither bláth nor mbláth, but blá instead - debunking thereby ideas of efflorescence and ‘the mouth of flowers’ and all that.

Blá, a feminine noun, denoted (historically) a green, a lawn, a level field, and then a fertile plain, and fine pasture land. The term survives in place names in Gaelic and former-Gaelic Scotland also.”

Children carol singing outside Cork Opera House on January 3, 1974
Children carol singing outside Cork Opera House on January 3, 1974

Now to really serious matters. We are into the last run-up to the wonderful festival of Christmas - or Midwinter as they would have called it in ancient Ireland. What are your most treasured memories of that time in childhood? What went on at home, what were the secrets hidden by parents, what did you look forward to most?

As the 20th century wore on, the visit to Santa Claus was beginning to become an integral part of the run-up, as families had slightly more to spend on special treats. But which one to visit? (We won’t even consider the current custom of visiting each and every one with an over-indulged offspring who gets thoroughly confused by the preponderance of big bearded men in red suits.)

Each Santa had his own attractions and you had to consider carefully, not only the cost of one against another (for parental pockets, though deeper than they used to be, were not bottomless) but what experiences lay in store. 

The gift itself was never regarded as particularly important - how could it be when it came from a heap marked ‘Boys’ or ‘Girls’ rather than being chosen with the utmost care by a loving relative who had already been primed with the requisite information? The overall experience was the thing.

The giant slide in Kilgrew’s on Merchant’s Quay, where you slid down into Santa’s very living room? Or the unforgettable film of The Night Before Christmas, which was shown in a tiny little tented theatre on the first floor of the Munster Arcade after you had been to see Santa and got your present? What one do you remember best?

Incidentally, we were delighted beyond measure to discover on a channel which shows vintage movies, that very film which was seen by so many children of the 1960s in the magical surrounds of the theatre in the Munster Arcade, and which was getting very battered and shaky towards the end of its life.

Yes, the very same film, made some time in the 1940s with a distinctly American cast, but pure enchantment to the Cork children of yesteryear. It is now safely saved for nostalgic re-viewings over the winter.

Of course, going around town, looking into all the shop windows, was an entertainment in itself back in the ’60s when Ireland was gradually moving into a more colourful and commercial world. 

Who remembers the very first time coloured lights were strung above Patrick St? Oh the excitement!

We remember children standing on Patrick’s Hill and deliberately blurring their vision by staring extra hard so that they could see endless strings of lights going off into infinity!

And the utterly wonderful displays in the major shops! Cash’s, of course, always led the way with its fairytale themes, each window with a different story, so you could go from one to the other, feasting your eyes on magical godmothers, beautiful princesses, Jack climbing up his beanstalk, elves dancing, ugly sisters cavorting, and even reindeer dashing through artificial snow. It was almost as good as going to the pantomime.

And, if memory serves us right, the chief man in charge of creating those wonder windows each December was also a gifted actor in our city’s theatres. Still is, one imagines! He certainly had the theatrical touch when putting together the displays that have remained in so many memories over the years.

Further back, in the 1950s, Cork didn’t really run to big glittering displays. Small grocery shops would twine a string of tinsel around a box of oranges, and perhaps hang up one of those folding paper bells over the counter. Others would place a crib scene in the window for children to admire. It was enough to build up the excitement.

And families certainly didn’t go out on buying expeditions for strings of electric fairy lights, much less turn the front of their homes into Las Vegas. Instead, the children were put at the kitchen table with rolls of crepe paper, scissors and paste. Strips of different coloured paper were carefully folded in squares, one on top of the other, and then kept flat until the great afternoon when they could be opened and strung across the room.

Otherwise, it was out to the nearest field and hedge for some sprigs of holly and long tendrils of ivy to wind around the pictures on the wall. A friendly farmer would give us a branch from a big fir tree which would almost touch the ceiling at home.

In junior schools, decorations and little presents were toiled over at desks. The arrival of milk bottles (instead of daily deliveries from a churn to the household jug) meant the introduction of silver foil to the decorating table, a huge bonus. You could make little silver bells and string them together with a needle and cotton.

Back then, in the tighter ’50s, we made our own, found our own, and spent very little on it all. Isn’t it time we got back to at least some of that?

Tell us your memories. Email jokerrigan1@ gmail.com. or leave a comment on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork.

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